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March Madness 2021: NBA draft scouting guide

March Madness tips off Thursday, ushering what is more or less the unofficial start of draft season, as players receive a final opportunity to perform under bright lights before the predraft process starts. Due to COVID-19 uncertainty, we still don’t know the exact timing of the draft calendar yet. But this is the end of the road for college hoops, and the last time we’ll get to see prospects play in game settings before they arrive in the NBA. While it’s important never to overvalue what a player does in the NCAA tournament, it’s still an opportunity to learn some things, and given the circumstances, a key opportunity for some teams to see a range of players live.

Suffice it to say the tournament platform will be much more magnified this year. Due to the first two rounds being played entirely in or within driving distance of Indianapolis, the ability to see three or four games in a day, as well as the presence of a host of potential first-round picks, is an unusual one-stop shop to get eyes on a wide range of prospects. Most teams have been severely limited in terms of travel over the past year—some have allowed executives and scouts to attend games on a local basis this season, while others have chosen to stay off the road entirely. There will be teams in attendance, but the sense I’ve gotten is that travel remains touch-and-go for most. All things considered—and not to downplay the seriousness of the pandemic in any way—it’s a pretty convenient setup for scouting purposes.

That said, you’re probably watching the tournament from the comfort of home. Based on our most recent draft board, nine projected lottery picks and 21 of the top 40 prospects are expected to be in action this weekend. So if you’re an NBA fan trying to figure out where to start your prospecting, look no further.

All tip times are on Eastern Time.

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Thursday, March 18

What to watch: UCLA (11) vs. Michigan State (11), 9:57 p.m., TBS

If you’re just thirsty for meaningful basketball, consider the Wichita State–Drake game as a precursor, but this Michigan State–UCLA tilt is fairly tasty for a First Four game. Spartans wing Aaron Henry has picked up his play in recent weeks and is a big part of why his team is even here—he projects as a second-rounder right now primarily due to his streaky shooting (28% from three). The Spartans have a few other prospects worth watching in the future, including Malik Hall and Rocket Watts. UCLA doesn’t have a ton of NBA-type talent, but sophomore wing Jaime Jaquez is the one to watch.

Friday, March 19

What to watch in the afternoon: Florida (7) vs. Virginia Tech (10), 12:15 p.m., CBS; Arkansas (3) vs. Colgate (14), 12:45 p.m., truTV; Texas Tech (6) vs. Utah State (11), 1:45 p.m., TNT; Georgia Tech (8) vs. Loyola Chicago (9), 4 p.m., TBS; Tennessee (5) vs. Oregon (12), 4:30 p.m., TNT

As a precursor here, No. 1 seeds Illinois and Baylor are both playing in this window of games, but are all but locks to advance—in the interest of time and quality of play, you can back-burner those teams until the second round. I think you can probably wait to watch Ohio State and Houston as well.

Start the day with Florida–Virginia Tech, which features Gators sophomore guard Tre Mann, a potential first-round pick with the ability to win this game for his team. Mann can be a little too casual and doesn’t love physicality, but he’s coming off a huge second-half performance in Florida’s SEC tournament loss to Tennessee, and has strung together four straight 20-point efforts. He’s shooting just under 40% from three on the year, and if Mann can clean up his mistakes and take a leap forward as a passer, he has enticing potential as a 6′ 5″ playmaker.

I expect Arkansas to handle Colgate, but you may want to throw that game on a second screen to take a look at freshman Moses Moody, who played one of his best games of the season against LSU last week, and has scored exactly 28 points in three of his last four. The 18-year-old Moody is trending heavily toward the lottery, as a projectable shooter with an NBA frame. He’s an average athlete still rounding out his ball skills, but Moody well surpassed expectations as far as his readiness for college was concerned, and he’s the Razorbacks’ top option. The hope is we’ll see him against more physical competition in subsequent rounds. The winner of this game faces the winner of Texas Tech and Utah State, which is at least worth monitoring, with prospects Terrence Shannon Jr. and Neemias Queta leading their respective teams, and on the verge of entering the draft. An Arkansas–Texas Tech game (and a likely head-to-head matchup between Moody and Shannon) would be appointment-viewing.

Georgia Tech is one of the hottest teams in the country and is led by senior guard Jose Alvarado, who has begun to capture the attention of scouts nationally and may be shedding his status as a draft sleeper. Alvarado is listed at just 6′ 0″ but boasts arguably the best defensive instincts of any guard in this draft class, with lightning-quick hands and an unrelenting motor helping him blow up plays all over the court (his 4.7% steal rate is remarkable). Alvarado has also been superbly efficient, shooting 59% on twos, 38% on threes and 84.6% from the foul line this year. Consider that Payton Pritchard was a first-round pick in 2020, and Alvarado deserves to be drafted. If the Yellow Jackets win this game, they get a crack at Illinois, pitting Alvarado against Ayo Dosunmu.

If there’s a game to keep a close eye on, it’s Tennessee–Oregon State, with the Vols’ two potential first-rounders—freshmen Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer—drawing lots of attention from NBA scouts. Tennessee is a shaky half-court team that leans on them heavily, which has led to some pronounced ups and downs.

Johnson has been a projected lottery pick for most of the season, but his recent play in particular has left a strong impression. His mix of explosive athleticism, nonstop energy and tenacity, and acrobatic finishing skills point to big upside if he can become a consistent three-point shooter. There’s some risk in his profile, but the intangibles are going to work in his favor, and his flashes of ability are more and more frequent.

Springer has come back to Earth after a hot week in February, but he’s one of the youngest draft-eligible prospects and has had productive moments this season. At the moment he projects as more of a late first-rounder, with his lack of offensive dynamism raising questions for some scouts. Also keep an eye on senior Yves Pons, who’s one of the best athletes in college basketball but has a narrower path to making the NBA as a defensive specialist.

If Tennessee wins this game—and Oregon State is hot, so it’s far from guaranteed—it sets up a potential matchup with Oklahoma State that would likely be the most heavily scouted game of the tourney’s first weekend.

cade-cunningham-okc-kansas

What to watch in the evening: Oklahoma State (4) vs. Liberty (13), 6:25 p.m., TBS; North Carolina (8) vs. Wisconsin (9), 7:10 p.m., CBS; West Virginia (3) vs. Morehead State (14), 9:50 p.m., TNT

Speaking of Oklahoma State, Friday brings a quality look at projected top pick Cade Cunningham, who has been on a serious late-season roll and has the Cowboys peaking at the right time. Their path is not easy, but thanks to Cunningham’s play and a handful of big-time conference wins, Oklahoma State looks like a Final Four dark horse. Liberty has been to the tournament frequently, but Oklahoma State is unlikely to be caught unawares.

Win or lose, Cunningham’s status as the favorite for No. 1 is unlikely to shift, but monitoring his play in these high-stakes games is a major NBA-relevant subplot. He’s the total package offensively at 6′ 8″ and has been utterly unfazed by big moments so far. The hype around Cunningham has peaked at a good time, and the prospect of a matchup with Tennessee’s athletic, tenacious defense on Sunday is tantalizing.

North Carolina–Wisconsin is worth throwing on a second screen, primarily for the Tar Heels’ pair of freshmen bigs, Day’Ron Sharpe and Walker Kessler. Sharpe is a relentless rebounder and advanced passer who has built a first-round case on the strength of his motor and skills, despite limited minutes. He’s been one of my favorite prospects to watch this season, and if he can improve his conditioning, he’ll have quite a bit to offer teams at the next level.

The 7′ 1″ Kessler seems more likely to stay in college after spending most of the season buried in the lineup but has looked like a draftable player over the last few weeks, as his opportunities have increased. His minutes fluctuate heavily, but he moves his feet well, protects the rim effectively and he’s massive. This matchup may be a good spot for him given the way Wisconsin likes to play through their centers. Also keep an eye on Caleb Love, who’s had a poor freshman year but was an All-America level prospect and still has potential long-term. If Carolina wins, they’ll likely draw Baylor, which would be a must-watch game for scouts.

The final set of games on Friday is less enticing from a scouting standpoint, but it’s an opportunity to check out West Virginia, led by sophomore guard Miles McBride, who has gradually forced the issue this season and played his way into draftability. He’s not particularly big, but he’s an excellent defender, and can hitch that to a streaky but potent jump shot and above-average passing skills. McBride struggles getting to the rim at times and settles for shots too often, but he’s anchored one of the better offenses in the country, and turned in an outstanding effort against Oklahoma State in the Big 12 tournament. He’s somewhere on the cusp between this year and next year’s draft, and how he plays this week could influence what happens.

Saturday, March 20

What to watch in the afternoon: Colorado (5) vs. Georgetown (12), 12:15 p.m., CBS; Florida State (4) vs. UNC Greensboro (13), 12:45 p.m., truTV; Kansas (3) vs. Eastern Washington (14), 1:15 p.m., TBS; LSU (8) vs. St. Bonaventure (9), 1:45 p.m., TNT; Michigan (1) vs. Mount St. Mary’s/Texas Southern (16), 3 p.m., CBS; USC (6) vs. Wichita State/Drake (11), 4:30 p.m., TNT

Note that No. 2 seeds Alabama and Iowa are playing Saturday, but both figure to advance, and there are concurrent games that are more appealing from a viewing standpoint.

The early slate is strong on Saturday, beginning with Colorado-Georgetown, which is worth monitoring primarily for promising Buffaloes freshman Jabari Walker. The son of former Lakers forward Samaki Walker doesn’t play a ton of minutes, but he looks the part and posted quality-rate stats and strong shooting splits (including 48% from three on 37 attempts) as a true freshman. He’s a player to watch for 2022.

Flip over to the Florida State game for a look at Seminoles freshman Scottie Barnes, who remains a projected lottery pick on the strength of his feel and intangibles. Barnes is not exceptionally athletic, but he’s unusually long, tough and smart, and poses a challenging eval based on what you value. His versatility is an asset, but his jumper is highly inconsistent, and his draft slot will ultimately be tied to how confident teams feel in his offensive game evolving. UNC-Greensboro has a potential sleeper in Isaiah Miller, a pesky guard who racks up steals and shoulders a huge offensive load but struggles to shoot the three.

Kansas also plays in this window, but a potentially COVID-19-depleted roster makes this a tough call. Jalen Wilson is not traveling with the team, and David McCormack and Tristan Enaruna missed the Big 12 tournament, so the Jayhawks could be on upset alert. Ochai Agbaji, assuming he’s active, is the guy to watch. LSU–St. Bonaventure should make for the better watch, headlined by LSU’s star freshman Cam Thomas, a potential first-rounder. Thomas is often shoot-first, shoot-second, but he’s had a strong individual year and is the key to the Tigers making a run. St. Bonaventure’s junior center Osun Osunniyi is a quality rim protector who will warrant looks, but he’s a fringy prospect at the moment.

The middle part of the afternoon is much thinner, but it’s a chance to take a look at Michigan, who is heavily favored to win as a 1 seed, but is likely without Isaiah Livers, who is out indefinitely with a stress injury in his foot. It’s unclear how much time he’ll miss, but it places much more pressure on potential lottery pick Franz Wagner, who is at his best accentuating his teammates, not forcing up shots. The Wolverines were disjointed in their Big Ten tourney loss to Ohio State, and Wagner and Hunter Dickinson will have to pick up the slack. Dickinson is a throwback big and more of a long-term prospect, but he’s had a strong freshman year and has legit size.

The marquee player of the day is Evan Mobley, who we currently project as the No. 2 prospect in the draft, and whose freshman year has gone somewhat underappreciated, probably because he plays on the West Coast. He’s a game-changing defender around the rim and has come on strong offensively as of late. The Trojans need him at his best to mount a real run in this tournament, and lately, he’s been that. NBA teams should feel comfortable in what they’re getting with him—he’s a more captivating prospect than James Wiseman was in 2020 and will be the first big drafted. USC is worth a close watch, especially if your team is tanking.

UCONN guard James Bouknight

What to watch in the evening: UConn (7) vs. Maryland (10), 7:10 p.m., CBS; Virginia (4) vs. Ohio (13), 7:15 p.m., truTV; Gonzaga (1) vs. Norfolk State/Appalachian State (16), 9:20 p.m., TBS; Texas (3) vs. Abilene Christian (14), 9:50 p.m., truTV; Oregon (7) vs. VCU (10), 9:57 p.m., TNT

UConn and star guard James Bouknight, a projected lottery pick, should be appointment-viewing against Maryland. Bouknight is one of the most exciting stars in college hoops, but he hasn’t looked 100% physically the past couple of weeks, and hasn’t been quite as locked in since returning from elbow surgery. Credit him for battling through it, but Maryland will mount a physical challenge in a game that’s something of a toss-up. The Terps don’t have a surefire NBA prospect this year—junior Aaron Wiggins is a legendary tease for scouts—but sophomore Donta Scott has had a strong season and deserves some level of interest. If UConn pulls this off, Bouknight will likely see a lot of Alabama’s defensive ace Herbert Jones in the second round.

Virginia has been a popular fade due to its current COVID-19 hiatus, which will severely limit practice time going into a matchup with a sneakily fun Ohio team, led by an NBA prospect in junior guard Jason Preston. Preston nearly led the Bobcats to an upset over Illinois in November and has been on the radar ever since. He may end up staying in college, but he can be the best player—and prospect—on the court in this game. Virginia has three fringe prospects in Sam Hauser, Jay Huff and Trey Murphy, and the nature of their lead-in to this game means it’s probably not worth making any conclusive assumptions about them. All three could warrant looks on two-way contracts or in training camp.

Gonzaga is almost certain to blow out whichever 16 seed it draws, but the Zags have a top-five pick in Jalen Suggs, a potential lottery pick in Corey Kispert and a third potential first-rounder in Joel Ayayi. There’s a window here to take a look before the two late games start. You’ll see more of Gonzaga in later rounds, anyway.

To end the night, Texas faces off with a defensive-minded Abilene Christian team that’s capable of playing it close but can’t match its size. The Longhorns have two projected first-round picks in Kai Jones and Greg Brown, both of which have been inconsistent contributors and seen their minutes fluctuate all season. Brown was benched in Texas’s Big 12 tourney win over Oklahoma State, and the state of his playing time moving forward is unclear—at this point, the damage is done, and his iffy feel for the game seems likely to send him down toward the back of the first round. Jones started that game over Brown, but still played just 18 minutes and collected four fouls. Both are extremely athletic but require a good deal of projection.

The matchup between Oregon and VCU might be the more interesting game: The Ducks have a potential first-rounder in Chris Duarte, and VCU relies heavily on sophomore Bones Hyland, who has a case to enter the draft. Duarte is already 23, but his numbers are almost unassailable this season, and might be a ready-made sharpshooter capable of coming off the bench in the NBA next season. Hyland won Atlantic 10 Player of the Year but can be entirely feast or famine, and some scouts have grown skeptical of his iso-heavy style and average, athletic tool box. This is an opportunity for both players to make a statement, and the winner likely gets a high-profile matchup with Iowa.

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